Gains on women’s rights should not be sacrificed at the altar of the Aam Aadmi Party’s expediency

Protest dharnas in Delhi after 1989 became an oxymoron — agitations against the state in accordance with State-made rules. Contained within a half km-stretch at Jantar Mantar, inconveniencing nobody. So, ‘disruptive’ dharnas should be welcomed if we are serious about shaking up the status quo. It’s the rhetoric around the Aam Aadmi Party’s dharna that disturbs. One, it demands accountability of the Delhi Police to a Minister rather than to citizens. Two, it defends prejudice. And, it’s selling women’s rights short.

Days after leading an illegal raid on Ugandan women at Khirki Extension, Somnath Bharti, Delhi’s Law Minister, said: “If there are good people … they will be welcomed. However, if they dance naked, sell drugs and run sex rackets, then there won’t be anyone worse than us...” Without proof or due process, he threatened hellfire for ‘these people’ (Africans) for allegedly doing all the above — drugs, sex work and, apparently, a naked dance. Then, demanding suspension of policemen who failed, for a change, to violate the CrPC, the Chief Minister went on a dharna. In the name of women’s rights.

Taking on the Delhi Police should be a dream come true for women’s rights activists. Time and again, we’ve called it a rogue police, and asked for police reform. New sexual assault laws brought in Section 166 A (public servant disobeying direction under the law), strengthening police accountability. Over nine months since the notification (April 2, 2013), the provision gathers dust. These and other legal routes to police accountability are available to the AAP. Use them.

On January 14, a Danish tourist was gang-raped. The police caught some rapists, but not before rounding up our most disempowered citizens — over 100 homeless people. One newspaper said, “a new band of faceless, nameless criminals” and the Delhi Police said, “vagabond rape” — playing into xenophobic fears of the stranger in the city preying on our women.

The AAP could have stood up against the police for failing to patrol the area, and protected the rights of the aam homeless. And yes, done that in the name of women’s rights, reminding citizens that over 90 per cent of rapes are committed by people known to women.

Last year’s anti-rape agitations and the Anna movement have both led to change. On both fronts, it will be a long haul. But gains on women’s rights, spreading a deeper understanding of women’s freedoms and sexual violence, should not be sacrificed at the altar of the AAP’s expediency.

In the run-up to Delhi’s election, the AAP plastered the city with posters: Bhrashtachaariyon ko vote dete rahoge, toh auraton ka balatkaar hota rahega (keep voting for the corrupt, women will keep getting raped). This instrumentalised the issue of rape to push an anti-corruption agenda; cashing in on anger over sexual violence, but betraying little understanding of it. To say rape will continue because politicians are too corrupt to end it trivialises real structural patriarchy in which gender inequality, sexism and sexual violence are part of a continuum. Posters promoting women’s equality would have been more appropriate. And when, defending Mr. Bharti, Delhi’s Chief Minister says “rape tendencies” begin with “sex and drug rackets,” he damages the progress made on the understanding of sexual violence.

The tenor of Mr. Bharti’s own stirring Sunday speech to cheering locals, on keeping “ma, behen, betis” of Khirki safe from “these people” echoed the language of khap leaders in the run-up to the Muzaffarnagar riots. It was ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ hamari auratein versus corrupting outsiders — paternal protectionism in the name of women’s safety.

Paternal protectionism is always patriarchy’s first response to violence against women — rolling back women’s freedoms, curbing mobility, and fanning the moral police. The AAP’s mohalla democracy, citizen policing and neighbourhood watch may seem like fine ideas in the context of a call for greater devolution of power in India. But for women, the minorities (ethnic, religious or sexual), or anyone not living by neighbourhood norms, it is a fearsome prospect.

Today, it’s racism. Tomorrow, caste or communal prejudice — with young Muslims accused of running a terror cell. The day after, homophobia — with Section 377 back, sexual minorities may be accused of criminality “against the order of nature” by paternal uncle-ji next door. And, of course, ubiquitous sexism — a thousand watchful eyes of mohalla patriarchs frowning at single women who don’t get home by mohalla bedtime.

Long ago, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar warned of eulogising the local, when in response to the Village Panchayats Bill, which sought powers for Panchas, he said: “A population which is hidebound by caste; a population which is infected by ancient prejudices; a population which flouts equality of status and is dominated by notions of gradations in life; a population which thinks that some are high and some are low — can it be expected to have the right notions even to discharge bare justice? Sir, I deny that proposition, and I submit that it is not proper to expect us to submit our life, and our liberty, and our property to the hands of these Panchas.” (Bombay Legislative Council debates, October 6, 1932)

We are told: “Give the AAP time. Your turn will come. Think of the big picture. Hold on. Crying ‘foul’ over small mistakes plays into the hands of entrenched political parties.” By all means, rock this rotten system. Women gain from shaking up the intransigent, patriarchal politics of patronage and criminality. But women too are impatient — from years of being second-class citizens, being told to wait in the democratic line while the nation sorted out ‘more important’ problems. And women will not hold on, while their hard won gains are frittered away today, with little evidence thus far of a more feminist AAP tomorrow.

Some say, raising feminist concerns in this “democratic moment” is like shooting for the Moon. Well, if they had heard the sexism on display in the Lok Sabha debates on March 19, 2013 during passage of our new sexual assault laws, they might realise that determined women forced blind men to sight a moon that historic day. So, if this is truly a moment of striking new discordant notes towards a better national anthem, then women’s voices must add to the cacophony. And shout ‘foul’ when our issues are sold like cheap ware in a populist marketplace of aam xenophobia, racism, and protective paternalism of the mohalla masquerading as women’s rights.

(Farah Naqvi, a writer and activist, is a member of the National Advisory Council. The views expressed are personal. E-mail: farah.naqvi64@yahoo.com)

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